Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Forward Thinking

beecherPhilippians 3:12-16
by Daniel Harrell

I heard fine reports about David Fisher’s visit last Sunday. Our former Senior Minister, whom I’ve known since our Park Street Church days together in Boston back in the early 90s, enjoyed being back here where he spent so many meaningful years.  Likewise we enjoyed our visit to Brooklyn for my end of our preaching swap. Brooklyn has traded its reputation as a hip-hop borough for a hipster vibe—revealing itself to be the new nexus for the young “eco-conscious, agrarian-seeming, hair-celebrating locavore.” According to one report, a shopper in a Brooklyn boutique fell in love with a pair of leather boots. She asked the salesperson: “Are these locally made?” The salesperson’s reply: “No. They're made in Manhattan.”

David’s church is not quite all that, but it is remains a fitting place for a Colonial minister to preach. It’s called the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, and while nobody wore buckles on their hats like we do here, Plymouth does have its own piece of the rock: Plymouth Rock, just like ours that sits out on the hearth. Everywhere you turn at Plymouth there’s also tribute to its famous founding pastor, Henry Ward Beecher, hailed in a recent biography as “the most famous man in America” (antebellum America, that is). Beecher was the first real celebrity preacher, his fiery and flowery sermons filled the broadsheets of his era. Plymouth Church was reportedly the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad; fugitive slaves regularly hid out there on their way to Canada. Beecher regularly held mock slave auctions in church, raising enough money to purchase freedom for enslaved Africans. 

Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman all came to hear him, with Mark Twain describing Beecher’s style: as “sawing arms in the air, howling sarcasms this way and that, discharging rockets of poetry and exploding mines of eloquence, halting now and then to stamp his foot three times in succession to emphasize a point.” The vast, ornate sanctuary (by Congregational standards) sits close to 2000 and the pulpit was the same one Beecher used. Statues and portraits adorn the hallways and gardens, and in the sanctuary windows stained glass venerations of Beecher’s deeds were installed after his death, competing with Jesus himself, all contributing to the sense that the church is still haunted by Beecher’s ghost, appropriate, perhaps, to this Holy Ghost Sunday we call Pentecost.
To haunt means to “be persistently and disturbing present,” which aptly depicts the first Pentecost. Technically I should say the first Christian Pentecost since Pentecost itself is an ancient Jewish feast celebrating the spring harvest. Also called the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost (meaning fiftieth) occurs fifty days after Passover (that’s seven weeks plus one day, seven days being the signal for creation and an eighth day being the classic Biblical depiction of heaven). Pentecost, along with Passover and Tabernacles, was one of three Jewish feasts that required traveling to Jerusalem, so crowds from all over the Jewish world were gathered to celebrate. 

In the book of Acts, Jesus’ disciples were there too, when suddenly the Holy Ghost became “persistently and disturbingly present” first by a mighty wind (wind being a Hebrew synonym for spirit), followed by fire (a symbol of power) shaped like tongues (a symbol of speech). Haunted by the Holy Ghost, the disciples blew out onto the streets, creating a holy disturbance for the gathered Jewish pilgrims. The crowds couldn’t believe what they heard—rube Galilean fishermen speaking in their own native languages. But the crowds did believe what they said—and some 3000 turned to Jesus that day to be harvested. The church was born as the gospel spread to the whole world.
The apostle Paul encountered the Holy Ghost on his way to Damascus. He was on a mission to destroy all these new Christians when Jesus burned him into one too. Paul launch a whole New Testament full of churches, including the one at Philippi, to which he wrote the letter we read from this morning. Philippians contains many memorable verses that define our faith, and I’ve spent these Sundays since Easter focused on those “most likely to be cross-stitched” since so many have. This morning’s notable verses follow after another cross-stitched set we looked at two Sundays ago. I once saw them cross-stitched and appropriately hung over a toilet. Writing of his own vaunted accomplishments and success as a Pharisee, Paul nevertheless concluded that “whatever I gained, I now regard as a load of (literal) crap for the sake of gaining Christ.” On that Damascus Road, Jesus had condemned Paul not for his wickedness as a Pharisee, but for his goodness. Paul’s pretentious reliance on his credentials had paved his road to perdition. “I now count it all garbage,” Paul wrote, “compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord for whose sake I have suffered the loss of all things so that one way or another, I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

“Not that I have already attained this,” he quickly adds in our verses this morning. “I haven’t yet reached my goal,” or as other translations put it, “I’m not perfect,” which may come as a relief to us all. Except that unlike most people, Paul doesn’t use imperfection as an excuse. It’s his motivation. “I press on to be perfect,” he writes, working out his salvation “with fear and trembling” as he phrased it back in chapter 2. Is Paul saying that grace still takes effort? Yes, but not to attain. Grace has never been a reward for good deeds. But grace is the fuel of a righteous life. The grace that saves is the grace that motivates us to live lives worthy of it. As fuel, the grace that motivates also empowers. “Work out your salvation” Paul wrote, “understanding that God is doing all the work.” It’s the Holy Ghost inside us making righteousness happen. “I press on to obtain what Jesus has already obtained for me,” Paul explains, “though I do not consider myself to have attained it yet.”

OK, so language is still a little confusing. And analogies are hard to come by. Paul tries a racing analogy. “Forgetting what is behind (both his successes and failures, his pride and his guilt) and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal of the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Jesus is Paul’s finish line, but he’s the starting gate too. This only adds to the confusion. And I’ll admit I’m not much for racing analogies since the last race I ran had me coming in dead last. How about adding a wedding analogy since Paul uses these elsewhere too. It’s easy for couples in the throes of wedding planning to treat racing down the aisle as finally crossing a finish line. But if you’re already married, you know that by getting married you’re just getting started. That’s OK, because you soon find that loving somebody enough to marry them only makes you want to know them more. And the more you know the more you love. I think that’s what Paul means here. Knowing Christ made Paul want to know Christ more. It kept him running his race—even though he’d already won!

Another illustration that I like to use to explain this passage comes from snow skiing (which is OK since it snowed two weeks ago and Dawn and I still needed long underwear at Target Field on Friday night). I like to use skiing to explain this passage, but not because I’m a better skier than I am a runner (or a husband for that matter). Being a bad skier is actually what makes this analogy work. My favorite part of any ski trip is hanging out in the lodge at the end of a long day on the slopes, sitting by the fire and drinking hot chocolate. The last time I did skied (which was the last time I skied--in New Hampshire some years ago), I’d spent most of the day zipping down intermediate blue trails, succeeding just enough to delude myself into thinking I was ready for black diamond. I reserved the expert trail for the end, fully anticipating a triumphant descent and my fitting reward of hot chocolate by that roaring fire in the ski lodge once I gracefully reached bottom. However, once on that black diamond precipice, my complete lack of skill was totally exposed. I tried to translate my nifty blue trail maneuvers to this much steeper hill, but after a couple of lame efforts, I fell flat on my back, which most times would have meant would have meant simply getting back up, but this time, with the cliff coated in hard New England ice, and I in my slick nylon coated parka and pants, I couldn’t get up because I couldn’t stop. Screaming and swirling and flailing, I spun and slid all the way down the mountain not stopping until I reached the base of the hill, a few yards from the steps of the lodge, after which I got up, went inside and drank my hot chocolate.

This is my point: whether on my feet or my butt, for better or worse, one way or another, I still made it to the lodge. Holy Ghost gravity hauled me home. Pentecost guarantees that even Christians who are bad at being Christians still make it down the mountain.

You may remember my sharing with you a story last fall about being considered for an excellent job opportunity in one of my favorite cities (I mean, besides Minneapolis). I was flown in for interviews which I thought went tremendously well, and I left excited and confident about what I was sure would be a fabulous fit. Like Paul, I had proudly relied on my impeccable credentials and accomplishments, which I presumptuously figured made me a shoo-in for this new position. Instead, I soon received my rejection letter with the requisite “so many qualified candidates” blather leaving me both dejected and resentful. Then came a phone call. It was my rejecters calling me again. Had they recognized their error? Had they reconsidered their ill-fated decision? Had my creamy resume risen back to the top? Hardly. No, they just called to ask me to be a reference for their preferred candidate—a good friend of mine whose name (unbeknownst to him and with whom I have chuckled about this during the ensuing years) I had submitted as a personal reference for me. 

Of all the nerve! They wanted to know from me if there was any reason they shouldn’t hire my friend for my job. Now was my chance to bring some even distribution to the unfairness of life. While I couldn’t come up with any real reasons not to hire my friend, I probably could make up a few. Since I couldn’t have this job, why should anybody?

What I didn’t tell you last fall was that the job was Senior Minister of Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn. When we arrived there last weekend, their Associate Minister who greeted us introduced himself by telling me he had been on the Search Committee that rejected me. “I remember you so vividly,” he announced, which obviously was not a good thing given the outcome. Then to my horror, he went on to say how he had been the one who called me about the reference for David Fisher. And then he told me he’d never forgotten what I said. Well, this was just great. So much for “forgetting what lies behind and pressing on.” How do you forget what’s behind when it gets thrown back in your face ten years later? I braced myself to be scolded for my past pettiness and petulance. Humiliated afresh for my former bitterness. Clearly this guy had known how awkward I felt then. Why did he even let David use me as a reference? And why bring it up now? Must we relive that embarrassing nightmare?! I’m supposed to be your guest preacher this weekend!

 “I’ll never forget what you said,” this Associate Minister remarked. I closed my eyes for the shameful impact. “You immediately replied what a great choice we’d made and how you couldn’t imagine anyone more perfect for the position. I thought that was so gracious and honorable of you, given the circumstances. We hired David right afterwards.” Really? I said that? You thought that? About me? Pathetic and petty me? Seriously? Wow, talk about sliding down the hill on my butt: I skidded right into that lodge. I came in last place and still won the race! Holy Ghost gravity pulled me all the way home.

If you recall the Pentecost story, you’ll remember Jesus’ disciples as a pretty pathetic bunch too: betrayers and deniers, cowardly deserters of their Lord at the one moment he could have used their help. Left to die, unjustly executed on a cross, Jesus rose from the dead and came looking for them, only to find them still hiding out in fear of the authorities. Though maybe they were now scared of him. Jesus showed himself risen, and forgave them their sins, but that only eased their fear enough for them to go back to their old fishing jobs. So Jesus showed up yet again, and prodded them on to Jerusalem to start spreading the gospel, but they only made it so far as a hotel room still too scared to say a word to anybody. But with the Holy Ghost gravity, even these disciples who were bad at being Christians still got down the mountain. They got down onto the streets, finally opened their mouths and changed the world.

The Holy Ghost got me through my sermon last Sunday too, despite the ghosts of the past and Henry Ward Beecher haunting me from every corner. One of the many things I like about the Pentecost story is how in the crowds each heard the gospel in their own native language. We tend to attribute this to a miracle of speech, but it was also a miracle of hearing; a miracle that still happens and not only in Pentecostal churches. Often on Sundays after I preach somebody will thank me for saying what they needed to hear. When I ask what it was, they will relay words I never actually spoke. That’s the Holy Ghost gravity, translating one set of words into a language of healing and help. Just like when my words of disappointment and bitterness somehow were heard as enthusiastic endorsement.

I preached my Prodigal Son sermon last Sunday and afterwards a young hipster greeted me at the back of the church. He was wearing lipstick—which may be a Brooklyn thing—but it also made me wonder whether he might be somebody’s own prodigal son. Perhaps he heard me say how the father’s irresponsible love of his son in the parable is the same as God’s love for us, but I don’t know. He didn’t say what he heard. He just stood there in silence with tears in his eyes, and I knew one way or another, for better or worse, Holy Ghost gravity would pull him home too.

Monday, May 06, 2013


nowherePhilippians 3:7-11
by Daniel Harrell

Watching it snow in May has been enough to turn this Southerner into a raving existentialist. Here’s a scenario went through my mind: While up late trying to figure out what to say in this sermon, suddenly it’s 2 in the morning and I imagine myself going for a walk to clear my head. It’s cold out, snowing and slippery. Springtime in Minnesota. Once outside, I get an uncharacteristic hankering to walk along the creek, intrigued as I suddenly am by the unusual quiet of the night. I stroll down to the water’s edge, where the current rapidly courses up to the bank due to recent heavy rainfall and snowmelt. I curiously step too close to the edge, slip, bump my head on a rock and tumble into the torrent, unbeknownst to anyone. No one sees me fall. No one hears me splash. Unconscious, I am carried over the Minnehaha Falls down to the river and eventually washed out to sea.

Dawn awakes and wonders where I went. By 8AM she’s panicked and calls the police who initiate a search, but nobody thinks to check the river because Dawn knows I’d never go down there late at night in the snow. The search continues for a while, but finally dissolves into futility. There are tears (a few). Some nice remembrances (perhaps). But in time life goes on. Danielle gets promoted to my job. Revival ignites. Years later when asked whatever happened to her husband, Dawn sadly shrugs and shakes her head, saying how we have to live life as it is rather than as we wish it was. More years pass and no one asks anymore. Silence descends over this work I now so energetically sustain and value. It’s a potent irony. In the end, all of my conscientious effort at life evaporates into nothing.

OK, so it probably won’t happen like that. But it will happen one way or another. It is the perfect statistic. One terminal existence per person, each of us ultimately destined to a noiseless absence, our obsessions and energies over meaning and worth rendered absurd. Novelist DH Lawrence despaired that: “The search for happiness … always ends in the ghastly sense of the bottomless nothingness into which you will inevitably fall if you strain any further.” Famed French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre concurred, “All human actions are equivalent ... and ... all are on principle doomed to failure.” Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher (and whose 200th birthday we celebrate today), is considered the father of modern existentialism. For example, “I see it all perfectly;” he wrote, “there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.” 

Existentialists characteristically stress the utter pointlessness of human existence. If you’re doomed to die no matter what, why bother? Que sera, sera. You may find this depressing. A result of seasonal affective disorder, perhaps. Existentialists say they're just being realistic. It’s always darkest before it goes pitch black.

You can try to deny it. Or fight it. The premise at one local anti-aging clinic here in Edina, is that aging is an error you can fix. Your body naturally reduces its hormone levels over time which cause a rise in many of the diseases associated with aging, such as heart disease and dementia. By medically replacing these hormones, the clinic asserts you can stave off these diseases and effectively recapture your youth. The problem is that according to a recent study by government and independent health researchers, artificially increasing your hormones later in life also increases a risk stroke, blood clots, gallbladder disease, urinary incontinence and cancer. Hormones or not, you still die in the end. 

Then there are the Trans-Humanists, committed to the elimination of existential risk through the acceleration of human evolution beyond its current limits. Technology is the savior here, imagining a future of cyber-humans whose brains no longer degenerate, our lives and thoughts preserved though social media, our bodies cryonically frozen until nanoelectromechanical systems and synthetic organs advance to the point of replacing our messy and error-prone biology. The enlightened Trans-Human Manifesto confidently envisions “broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.” Unbuckle your seat belts.

Ethicist Gilbert Meilander, author of the provocatively titled Should We Live Forever? The Ethical Ambiguities of Aging, observes how “The classical understanding of virtue referred to what philosophers in recent decades have come to call human flourishing—the excellence that realizes and expresses the full potential of our human nature. Because that nature is an embodied one, we might suppose that, whatever human flourishing involves, it must include the aging and decline that characterize bodily organisms. Since, however, we are rational animals, our full potential may be realized only through our freedom to remake ourselves, transcending indefinitely the limits of the body. We try—rightly I think—to cure and even eradicate disease, but whether we should approach aging in the same way is deeply puzzling. Still more, when we notice that some of the more ambitious proposals for age-retardation seems rather like a desire to escape bodily existence itself, we may begin to wonder whether the aim is to transcend or to transgress the body’s limits.” 

Kierkegaard posited that while humans are indeed rational animals, we are also ecstatic animals. We possess an innate sense of transcendence which fuels our hunger for immortality. Prolongation of this life, sadly, no matter how long we prolong it, constantly fails to slake our hunger. It’s like a dinner party that won’t ever end. Or worse, a party that ends badly. “A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater.” Kierkegaard wrote, “I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.”

 Existentialists describe life as existing in three dimensions: you, your world and that ominous maw of death they call the void which suffocates everything with its grim inevitability. To this three-dimensional existence, Kierkegaard advanced a fourth. Somehow, despite humanity’s most horrendous inhumanities—war, terrorism, torture and all sorts of individual evil—people persist in remolding new meaning and purpose. That survival and hope persevere in the darkest of voids testifies to this fourth dimension, which Kierkegaard recognized as the Kingdom of God. Human flourishing cannot happen apart from resurrection. By rising from the dead, Jesus changes everything—and not just the horrible deeds that kill, but the honorable deeds in which we falsely place our confidence too.

This was the apostle Paul’s existential realization as he languished in the darkness of his Roman prison cell contemplating execution. His words have proven worthy of cross-stitching, and I have devoted these Sundays since Easter to them. “God who began a good work among you will bring it to completion.” “Living is Christ and dying is gain.” “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow and tongue confess him Lord.” “God is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” I’ve seen this morning’s verses cross-stitched and hung in numerous places, most memorably over the toilet in a guest bathroom.

Chapter 3 commenced with Paul taking aim at those who insisted Christian faith be augmented with conformity to Jewish ceremonial ritual, specifically circumcision. Salvation by faith through grace by itself was not enough. We waltzed through this confusing territory last Sunday, confusing since Paul also argued that our salvation by grace be “worked out with fear and trembling” (coincidentally, the title of a Kierkegaard classic). Paul’s point, however, was not that our work can earn our salvation—grace is no reward for good behavior. And yet grace must still show itself to be true. Good works of love are the visible fruits of salvation.

Customarily, we Americans presume ourselves to be basically good people, exceptional sometimes. 71% of Americans still believe in hell, but less than ½ of 1% ever imagine themselves going there. After all most of us do not murder, do not cheat or steal to any criminal degree, do generally behave with baseline levels of kindness, and do as little harm as possible. There are mistakes to be made, a few sins here and there, nobody’s perfect, we’re only hummus, which is all fine and good until you find yourself at the edge of that existentialist void and discover that being good doesn’t do any good. You’re going to die anyway.

This is what happened to Paul. If anyone had any reason to think himself exceptional it was him. As the Pharisee Saul, his credentials were impeccable: circumcised on the eighth day, a descendent of Abraham of the tribe of Benjamin, as Hebrew as you could get; zealous and blameless as to the law, a very holy man. Yet happily riding down that road to Damascus, Saul was violently cast into darkness by the light of Christ that exposed Paul’s whole life as a sham. “Whatever gains and assets I had, these I have come to regard as loss and liability, and flush down the toilet because of Christ.” It’s not as if Paul now minimized his credentials, humbling considering them to be no big deal. Uh-uh, Paul looks at his impressive successes and accomplishments and he is horrified.

I’ve told you about how easy it is for pastors to visit people who’ve just received bad news—whether it’s the bad news of sickness, a lost job or a troubled child just flunked out of school. Any pastor can pay that visit. People who’ve received bad news are actually glad to see us. As bad as bad news can be, it can also be the threshold for spiritual conversion. Good news, on the other hand, is spiritually perilous. It takes a better minister than me to visit a person who’s just scored a large bonus or bought a huge house or been promoted at work or whose child just got into Harvard. When things are going good, the last person we want to see is a minister. We don’t want God meddling with our success. We stay off Damascus roads. Jesus did not condemn Paul’s wickedness as a Pharisee. Jesus condemned Paul’s goodness. His treasured reputation and achievements were all garbage, filth fit only for law-abiding dogs. “I regard it as all rubbish,” Paul wrote, “compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord for whose sake I have suffered the loss of all things.”

All that mattered now was being found by Christ as having no righteousness or goodness of his own. “[Grace] works like a trap,” Kierkegaard said. You cannot capture it. It has to capture you. There was an exceptional time in my life when I’d committed some spectacular sins, which I shamefully tried to hide though they ate me up inside. When I finally confessed, I did so to Christian people I didn’t know so well, not wanting to risk disappointing those I cared for most. These Christian acquaintances quickly brushed my iniquities aside, kindly providing rationalizations and excuses to guard my self-worth. Nobody’s perfect, you’re only human, everybody makes mistakes, you’re still a good person. Yet ironically, all their unconditional support only made things harder. It wasn’t my self-worth they needed to guard as much as their perceptions of me. How could we still be friends if I was a real sinner? Feeling this burden, it is was unbearably stressful to finally confess my sins to one of my oldest friends. Given our longtime relationship, I knew I would deeply disappoint him. But grace works like a sweet trap. My friend assured me I needn’t worry about disappointing him. He’d never thought that highly of me.

The efforts we make to impress and to generate admiration and attention, the résumés on which we count to earn merit and favor, these all inevitably evaporate into nothing. In the presence of Christ—whatever was gain is counted as garbage. And this is good news. Paul flushes all his meritorious efforts and credentials down the toilet gladly. Paul gladly gives up what is exposed as nothing so that he might attain everything. His loss is gain. His defeat is his victory. His death is his life. Grace captured him. “I have been found” he writes, “with no righteousness of my own that comes from obeying the law, but only that which comes through faith in Christ”—and not even necessarily his own faith. The phrase is just as easily translated as the “faith of Christ” such that in the end what saves us is not even our own faith—which can be so wobbly and uncertain—but instead Jesus’ faith in us based on what he has done for us and in us and to us. Grace is a sweet trap.

Grace is our hope—a hope that ethicist Gilbert Meilander describes as the virtue that sustains us on our way toward the true beauty we long for, the genuine  goodness that finally catches our heart and holds us still, protecting us against any presumption that an indefinitely extended earthly life could ever quench our longing, whether that life be organic or virtual, by way or hormonal replacement or technological trans-human cryonics. Our longing is for more than this life’s dinner party, sumptuous as it may be, something other than just indefinitely more of the same. Our life, however long, always seems less than complete.

This is why the communion table has always featured only a bite of bread and a sip of wine. It was never meant to be life’s banquet, but an hors d’oeuvre for the real thing. It whets our appetite and arouses our hope. As we gather around it, let us gladly flush our gains as losses, that we too, like Paul, may find ourselves sweetly trapped by Christ.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Work It Out

trophyPhilippians 2:12-13
by Daniel Harrell

If this passage sounds recently familiar its because you’re remembering Jeff Lindsay’s sermon from New Year’s Eve Sunday from these same verses. Following in last fall’s series on light, Jeff focused on Paul’s encouragement a few verses later that we “shine like stars in the world.” As far as this this morning’s passage, he did point out the awkwardness we Protestants feel at being told “to work out our own salvation” since as Protestants we’re all about being saved by grace alone. Tack on the “fear and trembling” part and the verse feels like a throwback to a pre-Reformation recipe for medieval Catholic guilt. “Fear and trembling” is an idiom long associated with divine judgment, setting up Philippians 2:12 as a legalist’s dream verse, and most likely the basis for another idiom that many people think is somewhere in the Bible; namely, “God helps those who help themselves.” Legalistic types worry that salvation by grace alone is nothing but dangerous permission to slack off when it comes to obedience. Work out your salvation yourself or you’re doomed.

Normally I’d wait a little longer before returning to a passage to preach, but you can’t do a sermon series from Philippians and skip this one. I was tempted to just replay Jeff’s fine sermon, but that would make me a slacker. So instead I’m working it out with fear and trembling myself. This the fourth in a series I’ve entitled “verses from Philippians most likely to be cross-stitched.” Philippians ranks as a favorite book in the Bible due to its prolificacy of memorable exhortations. We began in chapter 1 with: “God who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Then we looked at: “Living is Christ and dying is gain.” Last Sunday brought us to chapter 2 and the collection of verses where Jesus is praised as the humble then exalted Son of God at whose name every knee will bow and every tongue confess his Lordship. This morning’s passage, well-known though it is, is less likely to be subject to needle and thread. It’s not nearly so much endearing as it is confusing.

Verse 12 begins with Paul commending the Philippians’ reputation for obedience. They are Christians who hear the word of God and do what it says. Obedience derives from the Greek word “acoustic,” which while placing an emphasis on hearing, also means that to hear something clearly is to heed it too. Good behavior is evidence of good listening. Likewise bad behavior results from selective hearing. Paul sits chained in a Roman jail and worries that the Philippians’ obedience may falter, especially given that it hinges on their humble and selfless love for each other. Nobody wants to hear about humility. While admired in others, it’s rarely a virtue you seek for yourself. Modern advocates of the importance of high self-esteem would go so far as to deem humility to be hazardous to your psychological health. In cultures devoted to self-confidence and personal ambition are paramount, Paul’s admonition that we “in humility, regard others as better than yourself” is bad advice. 

Yet as we read last Sunday, Paul lauds Jesus’ humility as the hallmark of virtue. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus ,” he sang, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Humility and human are tightly entwined, both deriving from the word humus meaning ground or dirt. Some say humility is therefore all about “remembering where you came from;” but Christianity tends to shovel a little deeper. We all come from the dirt, Scripture says, made of the dust of the ground. But Scripture also insists that you are dirt, ruined by the sin in your life. No one can stake a claim to righteousness based on his or her own obedience, for as Paul wrote elsewhere, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

This severe, self-effacing character of Christian humility led the great theologian Karl Barth to equate it to a “startled [self-]consciousness of having nothing to assert in one’s favor.” To be so startled by our own deficiency may be what Paul meant by fear and trembling. You work out your salvation without any confidence that you can actually pull it off. On the one hand this feels like a set-up for more religious guilt, but on the other hand it does keep away any temptation toward selfishness and conceit. In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul uses fear and trembling to describe his inadequacy in preaching the gospel so that he has to rely on God’s grace. In 2 Corinthians 7, fear and trembling describes the Corinthians’ own obedience at hearing the gospel taught by Titus, realizing how they too needed God’s help to do it. In Ephesians 6, fear and trembling describes servants’ regard for their masters, analogous to the way we are to regard Christ as Lord. Fear and trembling is not so much quaking and shaking in the presence of God (though some of us could probably use a little more of that), but to that startled self-consciousness at our own scarcities and weakness. We’re just not as fabulous as we sometimes like to think ourselves to be. 

At a graduation ceremony in Wellesley, Massachusetts last year, the English teacher giving the speech began by shocking the cap-and-gowned seniors. He said, “Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field. That matters. That says something. And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same.  And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same. All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special. You are not special. You are not exceptional.” Really? I’m not special? I’m not amazing? 

Imagine anybody ever saying that about a high school class in Minnesota! Every child is above average, right? Especially here in Edina as I understand it. The English teacher’s speech was so shocking that a video of it went internet viral. He had to go on television to defend it. He said, “In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another — which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.”

Just because somebody says you’re amazing doesn’t mean that you are. You have to do something to prove it. Applied to Christianity, God may love you just as you are, but that doesn’t make you amazing. It makes God amazing, which is why we sing about amazing grace. But to sing about grace without it having any effect is only hypocrisy. You can do nothing to earn your salvation, but you still must do something to prove you received it. Paul doesn’t say to work for our salvation, but he does say work out your salvation. Exercise it. Over and over, here in Philippians and elsewhere, Paul pleads with believers to live lives “worthy of the gospel,” worthy of grace, humble lives that look like Christ’s life. Not for humility’s sake, but for the sake of love. It was love that caused Jesus to humbly set aside his equality with God for us and it is love that spurs us to humbly set aside ourselves for others.

The Toronto Star ran an obituary last month for Shelagh Gordon, a 55-year-old woman who died suddenly of a brain aneurysm.  Given how so many obituaries read like résumés, Shelagh’s denoted nothing by way of extraordinary accomplishments. All it said was that she had been a loving aunt and a special friend. Surprised by so meager a mention, a newspaper reporter decided to explore a little more deeply and see what such an ordinary life looked like. She crashed the funeral and interviewed Shelagh’s friends. It turns out that Shelagh Gordon didn’t have a great job, she wasn’t married and never had children, so she wasn’t successful in any traditional sense. All she did was love people. And the people she loved couldn’t stop telling stories about her kindness. If Shelagh noticed your boots had holes, she’d press her new ones into your arms. When you casually admired her coffeemaker, you’d wake up to one of your own. A bag of chocolates hanging from your doorknob would greet you each Valentine’s Day, along with some clippings from the newspaper she thought you’d find interesting. It was said that Shelagh made people around her feel not just loved but coveted. Hers was not list of achievements, but a legacy of relationships.

Funerals serve as tearful goodbyes to a departed person’s life, but as the reporter found, funerals are also lenses through which we assess our own lives. Some fear and trembling can show up here too. We hear of such humble and loving people and wonder how we could ever measure up. What makes a life worthy? We easily ascribe value to the amazing: To the Bachs and the Bonheoffers, the Mandelas and the Mother Theresas, people who’s lives changed the world in extraordinary ways and influenced millions. But Shelagh was an ordinary woman who only a few people ever knew, each of whom had their worlds changed in ways a Mandela or Mother Theresa never touched. She changed them by loving them deeply and personally, in simple and ordinary ways, inspiring them to do the same to others though she probably never realized it. The reporter concluded, “Her life revealed that it doesn’t take much to make a difference every day — just deep, full love —and that can be sewn with many different kinds of stitches.”

So many of you gushed this week about last Sunday’s memorable Innové Award presentation. It was great. Amazing even. A number of you said it was the best thing you’d ever seen happen in church. Extraordinary. But when you stop and think about it, the things we’re trying to do with Innové are actually pretty ordinary: feeding hungry schoolchildren, making a college experience possible for a handful of students with disabilities, teaching men to be good boys, providing some clean water and interest-free loans, some fresh produce on a bus. In the vast scheme of things these are fairly unremarkable, except that these humble and ordinary acts, done with love, are the epitome of the gospel God calls us to obey.

 To call last Sunday amazing reminds me of a Sunday last year when  one of you gushed about a sermon I preached. You called it perfect. Talk about fear and trembling. I wasn't sure what to do with that, I should have quit while I was ahead. I hope I just said thank you and praise the Lord. Though at the risk of sounding cheeky, I told you how I wish I'd said something along the lines of "it's too soon to tell." That's because the true measure of sermonic perfection can only be the effect it has on our life as a congregation afterwards. The same with last Sunday. Describing last Sunday as amazing doesn’t mean that it is because while all these ideas we celebrated and funded are good things to do, we haven't done anything yet. We haven't fed any kids or made an interest free payday loan or loaded a bus with with fresh produce. We don't even have a bus to load. We still have something to prove, and this should humble us and even make us a little scared. We still have to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. This is our obedience, and from obedience, no doctrine of grace can save us. In Jesus’ famous parable of the talents, where two stewards entrusted with their master’s money had increased its worth, a third steward gets sternly castigated by his master for burying his allotment in the ground. The steward put forth fear of the master as his excuse, not wanting to mess up what his master had given him. However the master quickly retorted how if the steward truly thought the master to be as imagined, the steward’s fear would have motivated him to get off his butt and do something. As it turned out, the steward wasn’t afraid. He simply didn’t care. Thus the master branded him “wicked and lazy” and cast him into the darkness to weep and gnash his teeth.” The moral seems to be this: refuse to work out your salvation and your salvation may not work out.

This should humble us, and even make us a little scared. Not scared of God, I am sure, but scared of ourselves and of the says we can so easily sabotage our salvation. Which is why Paul tacked on the cross-stitch worthy news of verse 13. We can work out our salvation because in the end it is God who does the work in us, hand in glove as Jeff put it, enabling both the desire and the effort to do what pleases the Lord.” What God demands, God provides. His spirit inspires both the will and the deed, the desire and the effort. As Karl Barth put it, “Salvation, the promised final deliverance that the Christian as such awaits, claims the movement, the activity, the work, the life of the whole person. In the reality of the kingdom of Christ, everyone who [will be] there [then] puts their future salvation into practice [now].”

God is the one who works in our work to provide both the will and they way. This humbles us too. Because God is at work, we praise the Lord instead of ourselves, which keeps us humble. “As for me,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “God forbid that I should boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live,” he said, I’m dead as dirt, “but Christ lives in me.” The same with us. Do you see any humility or willingness to place the interests of others ahead of my own? That’s not me. I’m dead as dirt. That must be Jesus in me. Do you see any loving my neighbor as myself? Do you see me forgiving people when they wrong me? That’s not me. Do you see me regarding others as better than myself? Serving them with ordinary and beautiful acts of love everyday? That’s not me. That must be Jesus in me. Jesus at work in us, enabling both the will and the work for his good pleasure.